How to tackle gendered ageism at work

Executive coach and author Bonnie Marcus speaks about gendered ageism and what employers, government and individuals can do to counter it.

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The treatment of older women in the workplace is “the next #MeToo movement”, with older women often suffering in silence, pushed aside or in some cases pushed out the door, according to US executive coach and author Bonnie Marcus.

She says older women are often made to feel ashamed if they stand up for themselves, just as women have been in the past over sexual harassment at work.  However, they are beginning to feel more empowered, says Marcus, author of the Politics of Promotion: How High-Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead.

She is currently writing a book on older women at work and has talked to many. Some have seen their work being reassigned or their views no longer being sought as they have got older; others have been made to feel invisible and irrelevant; others still fear that they will lose their jobs and not be able to get hired. “It makes me angry. A lot of the women I speak to are very qualified women with a track record. If companies don’t value these women, what is happening with those lower down the chain?” asks Marcus.

These women have grown up with the feminist movement, but have perhaps been ground down by a life spent coming up against an unlevel playing field at work, she says. “They need to reconnect with their inner bad ass.”

A large part of the gendered ageism problem is the obsession with women’s looks. As women start to show signs of ageing they face rejection. Many internalise ageist assumptions themselves. They feel pressure to dye their hair or have work done on their appearance to ‘freshen up’. Marcus, who is based in the US, cites one woman she interviewed who is 62 and has had botox and fillers. She said she recently woke up at 3am with a panic attack that someone would find out how old she is and avoided going to work on her birthday in case anyone asked her age. “She was afraid she would lose her job and would find it impossible to get another one,” says Marcus.

Another woman who worked in real estate told her that, as soon as she showed signs of ageing, she had found her client base being withdrawn from her. She has since had plastic surgery. Marcus adds that research shows women are seen as less competent as soon as they show signs of ageing in a way that men aren’t.

Another woman told her husband she was tired of dyeing her hair and was planning to go grey. Her husband asked if that was a good idea. “Do you want to make that statement?”he asked. She said she realised he was right. She did not want to be ashamed of her age, but she needed to earn, she said.

What can employers do?

Marcus says employers need to take a look at their assumptions and bias around older women. She suggests that employers do a survey of women in their organisation and break it down by age to see what different age groups need to be supported and to thrive at work and what obstacles are in their way. “Providing a safe environment to discuss these issues is important,” she says.

She adds that ageism, including gendered ageism, needs to be as much a part of diversity and inclusion training as sexism. Other suggestions include cross-generational mentoring and networking,  forums for highlighting the value and contribution of older women at work and including ageism in unconscious bias training.

Marcus says there are parallels with how working mums have been treated and assumptions made about what they want.  It all starts with acknowledging the problem. “Employers need to recognise there is an issue first,” she states.

Policymakers can help by educating people about their rights and the media can subvert received ideas, she adds.

Women can also do a lot to protect themselves from being marginalised, says Marcus. For instance, they can  be clear about letting line managers know they are still interested in progressing their career, take classes and stay marketable, stand up for themselves and others, defy ageist assumptions they may have internalised and continue to share their ideas at work.

Marcus is optimistic that things will get better, but says it will take time. “Right now it seems that ageism and gendered ageism are under the radar. I believe that, as more and more women are aware of their rights and there are more articles about it, things will get better,” she says.

“Women need to own the power of their age, their talent, wisdom and ambition. They still have so much value to add to the workplace and the world.”



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